Follow The Science

Posted yesterday at AVI

Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 speech has been frequently quoted

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I think of this with regards to all the complaints on a variety of topics about “following the science.” Folks are throwing that phrase around pretty blithely lately, both seriously and as a sneer. I like Glenn Reynolds and his site is one of the ones I go to first every day, but his credentials, formal and informal, do not include anything about making judgements about scientific matters that affect others. He is complaining about the experts, always in quotes, and how they have failed us recently, and he is not the only one. It has become a popular sport this year. I’m calling it out. It’s a cheap way to make points. People who have to read scientific research and try to get some sense out of it that they can pass it on safely to other people tend much more to “On the one hand, on the other hand.” People trying to score political points tend to make broader statements.

So, should you take 81mg of salicylic acid, a baby aspirin, every day? Aspirin’s been around for a long time, a lot of people take it, we know its effects in significant detail, so it should be trivially easy to figure that out, right? Years ago folks started taking a regular aspirin 325mg figuring that the blood thinning would have a good effect if they were likely to have blood clots or blockages. Lots of doctors signed on to the reasoning. Then the word went out that the 81mg were just as good with less risk, so everyone went to that. Unless you had some sort of a scary incident that made you look higher risk, at which point they put you back up to 325mg, even though there was no real data supporting it and even if your event didn’t have much to do with a need for thinning the blood.

A couple of years ago a large study came out suggesting that 162mg was better, followed by an even larger study that said none of it does any good unless you are on your way to the ER, and even small amounts increase risk of “events.” Got all that? That is how science works. There was one study about statins that was full of holes, but we went for years wondering if we should go off them, because they have side effects of their own, like increasing diabetes risk, which could be a net negative, right? Doctors disagree about whether surgeries are needed, what medicines are the best fit and even whether they are needed at all case-to-case. I suspect that mental health research, with political and cultural eyes over everyone’s shoulders are among the most difficult to make sense out of, but maybe I just say that because that is my task and it’s really irritating. Science is hard. That there are knuckleheads on the other side of your political divide who are even worse than you at figuring that out doesn’t get you off the hook. Not here.

We don’t do research about the things we already know. No one is researching what the next planet out after Uranus is. No one is applying for grant money to figure out what angle billiard balls go when they hit each other, or whether dogs can be taught to shake hands, or whether vitamins are good for you, or if investing in public sanitation reduces disease, or whether seat belts reduce auto deaths. We research things because we don’t know them, and even as the results are coming in they can look different every month. The researcher Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute was preparing his speech for a conference in May 2010 to make the solid declaration that the research was finally confirming what had long been suspected, that even if Neandertals might have interbred with modern humans in Europe 40,000 years ago, they provided no genetic material that has come down to us. That’s what the preliminary results showed after the full sequencing in 2009. But he had to change the speech while it was in draft, as it became clear that 1-4% of non sub-Saharan human ancestry actually is Neandertal.

I don’t think that early on in the CoVid crisis we should have been told “Wear masks….no, no, I mean don’t wear masks…wait, did I say don’t? I meant you absolutely have to wear masks.” But the worry at the time was that nervous people in South Dakota who never got out much anyway were going to hoard 50-100 N95 masks at a clip when we were worried about a shortage for city nurses who had people coughing in their faces. Also, masks are a mixed bag in terms of value. The good medical ones do a lot, the others vary in terms of their quality and how accurately people use them.

And even then it’s variable. They don’t protect you much walking around, and the protecting others is mostly cumulative percentage increases. Except of course, if the guy next to you sneezes without a mask, or starts coughing behind you in line. Or that table of jolly folks at the restaurant are singing along and laughing, and talking loudly and making lots of trips to the small restrooms. Which happens in New Hampshire and everywhere else. At those moments, masks matter a lot, and you suddenly get it. When you are out in the parking lot getting in your car to go home, not so much. And we know that drunks are going to understand the distinctions perfectly. So if you are making brave pronouncements about masks and rules, I remind you that you are not in the arena.

Some in the southern and sun belt states dismissed the idea that they were going to have a problem. It was all just those dumbasses in New York, we don’t need this level of shutdown. Some places, I guess you could say that was true. But Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix and lots of other sunbelt places did have problems. Nowhere near as bad, partly because the medical care was better, as people learned in the hard school hospitals of Detroit and Newark what worked best. Other people paid that cost for you. It might be nice if you at least said thank you.

OTOH, it has been ugly to hear people in this northern state actually gloating over deaths in those states, though, purely out of defensiveness and spite. They don’t think that’s what they are doing, but taking a breath and looking at simple content of sentences reveals that truth.

Lots of Americans broke the quarantine and distancing rules, egged on by people who said “Americans will never put up with that and will rebel.” Yeah, gee, thanks. So the others have to stay locked down even longer because you made excuses for the scofflaws. How is that different, except in scale, from making excuses for looters? So wise, so cynical, so…anosagnosic and ultimately selfish.

For openers, stop with the blanket statements about how well “the experts,” and the politicians, the men in the arena did or didn’t do. We had a lot of people talking, so you can prove whatever point you want with a little googling. That’s good to keep in mind when you read things that prove your POV. Some did better than others, and for many the book is still out. I made few predictions myself, whether from humility or timidity, but I did say that if we didn’t have that many deaths that some people would say “See, we never needed to worry.”

19 thoughts on “Follow The Science”

  1. Cross-posting my comment at AVI:

    Rarely, when dealing with practical matters, does Science remove the need for judgment. When Biden says ‘listen to the scientists’, I ask: Which scientists? Those virologists and immunologists who are focused on Covid-19 are going to have a different view from Public Health researchers who are concerned with a whole range of medical conditions, some of which may be impacted negatively by things which *improve* the C19 situation. Then there are Social Scientists, who may offer data on things like suicides and ‘deaths of despair’…not to mention Economists.

    I would think anyone with experience in running large/complex organizations and/or projects would understand about conflicting recommendations from different experts, but evidently not Biden.

    Many (most?) politicians don’t have any sense of how science actually works, and scientists are to them indistinguishable from magicians or shamans.

    I’d also add the point that too many scientists, and entire fields of science, have made excessive claims. In the 1960s, science had very high prestige, as a result of nuclear energy, the computer revolution, jet aircraft, medical innovations, etc….the idea that Social Science was based on equally sound principles and could achieve equally transformational results, likely had much to do with the Great Society programs.

    More recently, we have seen the abuses of mathematical modeling in epidemic and climate forecasting.

  2. If we go right back to the great Sir Ronald Fisher and his development of statistics to help understand scientific experiments in biology, we would have to agree that — Biology is Tough! The same virus is going to affect individual human beings very differently, from no effect to lethal. Throw in the indisputable observation that most of us don’t understand statistics — including most scientists — and it is easy to jump to the wrong conclusion, even in the pages of supposedly peer-reviewed journals.

    Knowing all that, “experts” in biological fields should tend towards humility, and be cautious about their recommendations. The “experts” who drove decisions in the Covid Scam were strangers to humility. Even worse, they made decisions without considering all the elements. Reasonable people can debate whether the Lock Downs accomplished anything medically — but there is absolutely no doubt that the destructive economic & social impacts of those Lock Downs are huge & long-lasting.

    We could have respect for “experts” who treated us members of the “herd” as citizens, and were honest & open from the beginning about the pluses & minuses of the actions they were using the police power of the State to force upon us. Lock Downs may extend the lives of some older people, but they will shorten the lives of (e.g.) cancer patients who do not get prompt treatment. Isolating people may benefit their physical health, but will have negative impacts on their psychological state. Lock Downs may slow the spread of the virus, but will also cause unemployment, bankruptcies, and their associated social problems.

    If “experts” were honest with us, we might respect them more.

  3. Your and other experts have said that the Russian vaccine was obviously no good, and yet as it turns out, it is a rather good vaccine. It needs a boatload more testing, but we are kinda in a hurry, and the testing so far looks very good. They are manufacturing it wholesale and they have said they are going to help the Indian government set up manufacturing in their country. India is really good at drug production. They hope to have billions of doses soon. I doubt any of the western drug companies are happy, as the Russians have also said it would be cheap.

    Experts are sometimes just mouth pieces, for larger forces. ;)

  4. Well, I’ve got a PhD. In a physical science. I’ve published papers that have hundreds of citations. And let me assure you that “the science” is not a real term. It is purely used in the political world as a cudgel against those who don’t want to do something the left wants to do. My vague recollection is that it was popularized by Al Gore to browbeat those who didn’t believe that by now we’d all have boiled off the planet. So when someone says “believe/follow/etc the science”, you can safely discount their bona fides, they are just trying to bully you.

    (My own personal definition of Science is that it is the idea that we can learn about the universe through observation. That’s it. That’s what science is. And it’s actually a pretty amazingly profound concept. How we interpret those observations, etc., is often tricky and inconclusive. But those conclusions, no matter how robust they end up being, are still not The Science.)

  5. Brian..”My own personal definition of Science is that it is the idea that we can learn about the universe through observation”…and along with that: you don’t have to take Authority’s word for things, you can go and see for yourself. Don’t trust Galileo’s findings about the motion of the heavenly bodies?…get your own telescope and make your own observations.

    Now obviously, you can’t always *personally* do this…you may not have room in your house for a particle accelerator or a supercomputer…but *someone* can either replicate or non-replicate the results.

    I wonder how much the average student in high school or college is exposed to actual lab science these days?…I get the feeling that it’s not very much.

  6. “and along with that: you don’t have to take Authority’s word for things, you can go and see for yourself.”
    Well, yes, because that simple idea of learning through observation upended previous notions of learning through revelation, i.e., from some expert or authority somehow.

    And it must be stressed over and over that replicability is all that matters. Whether it’s published or not tells you nothing–that’s kind of a step backward to the argument from authority. All that matters is that someone else can do the same experiment and get the same result.

  7. No one is researching what the next planet out after Uranus is. No one is applying for grant money to figure out what angle billiard balls go when they hit each other, or whether dogs can be taught to shake hands, or whether vitamins are good for you, or if investing in public sanitation reduces disease, or whether seat belts reduce auto deaths.

    I wound’t be so sure. Now that “Science” is government funded, you would be amazed at what we are spending money on. A lot of this is where Global Warming came from. Steve Hayward posts some examples every few weeks.

    Think Sokal Hoax.

  8. If you mentally substitute the word evidence for science every time you read or hear it, you won’t go far wrong. The systematizers are what got the scientific revolution started. Linnaeus didn’t just establish a framework for naming living things, he made it both possible and necessary to provide articulable reasons for making an assignment.

    There is no possibility of reasoned discussion unless some sort of agreed framework is in place. As Brian says, reproducibility is the key. There are not many controversial results that a layman could hope to duplicate. What “Science” was supposed to do was require that all the relevant information was on the table so that those that are capable have the opportunity and the rest of us can follow along.

    In the two most contentious issues playing out now, climate “change” and the epidemic, that information is simply not available. We find that much of the data that is used to support the hypotheses of anthropogenic global warming is manufactured by a process that the suppliers are unwilling to explain. In the case of the epidemic, it simply doesn’t exist because it is in the process of being made.

    I’ve described the process of making epidemic predictions as extended guessing and hand waving. Little more than extrapolating lines on graphs based on incomplete or erroneous data. I predict that the predictions for the next one will be no better. The things they are trying to predict are by their nature unknown at the time it would actually make a difference. Nor do I have much faith that accurate information won’t be obfuscated and distorted for political purposes as it was this time. Even without purposeful obstruction, the “fog of war” would still prevail.

    Some of the questions AVI asks are hardly novel. We go through a period of widespread airborne illness every year, wouldn’t it be nice to know if masks would help? I expect if the answer was a clear yes, we’d know it already, which means the answer is probably the effect is to small to make a difference.

  9. Brian wrote “And it must be stressed over and over that replicability is all that matters.”

    I think that’s one of a cluster of things that can matter. Granted, replicability is a centrally important consideration, and in lots of important cases replicability is all you really need to focus on, so I expect in practice we are often in violent agreement. But sometimes in complicated cases Occam’s Razor (or overfitting, or p-hacking, or other fiddly considerations related to inductive reasoning) can become as much of an issue as replicability. And sometimes “replicability” can be more slippery than one expects, as in various experiments (typically those touching on fundamentally uncertain behavior in quantum mechanics) which are only replicable in a probabilistic sense. And sometimes it’s worth doing science in fields where controlled experiments aren’t practical (e.g., understanding what’s going on with earthquakes, or supernovae, or the coalescence of Earth-like planets from more primordial arrangements of matter), and then things might not be strictly speaking replicable at all, though you can always wait for the next earthquake or supernova or coalescence of the sort that you care about, and then if and when it occurs, you can check whether it behaves similarly.

  10. The news media amplifies a lot of opposition politicians arguing that the currently governing politicians are not “listening to the experts.” The news loves hearing that…

    But the structural and systemic bias of such news is to present “experts” and “scientists” and “researchers” — one at a time. Monday’s guy just wrote a book. Tuesday’s guy just retired from his long government career. Wednesday’s person won an award…

    But “in the room where it happens” the guy on the hook to make the decision has, or ought to have, several many experts and scientists and generals and diplomats all there presenting different perspectives. Diversity, y’know. The medical guy says shut down the schools — little snotty nosed kids are horrible disease vectors and the costs of letting them pool and ebb and flow through the city are incalculable. The education guys says shutting down the schools will hurt ALL the kids and hurt “bubble kids” who are just barely keeping their heads above water, academically, the worst. Racially disparate impact — not only bad educational policy but will put schools into court for a generation. The NUTRITION guy says he can run lunch wagons to kids whether or not schools are open, but the AGRICULTURE guy says the kinds of commodities in stock for lunch wagons is so different from what they serve in school cafeterias the supply chain will fall apart in a month. The Pediatric guys says, vectors or not, the kids who get the virus will 99% recover with no long term ill effects. The Labor Union guy says the TEACHERS will get it from the asymptotic kids and die before Christmas. And so on and so on. And when somebody actually MAKES a decision, the news will have on 5 of the 6 experts all griping that “nobody listens” …

  11. In general, most people don’t understand science at all, nor do they understand its limitations and foibles.

    What has unfortunately happened is that most people have taken to sciencism, the unthinking worship of a concept they only vaguely understand. So long as there’s some anointed priest wearing a white lab coat telling them something, they’ll believe it with no more thought than an ardent Baptist will use to question the existence of Jesus as our Lord and Savior. That same person will loudly and annoyingly tell you how smart and virtuous they are, believing in “the science” while disparaging the Baptist whose beliefs are no more informed by rationalism than their own.

    Science isn’t something you “believe” in, and if it is, then whatever you believe is no more valid than the most crazed religionist believes in about their god. Science is something you reason to, from one logical point to the next, each backed up by verification. You can take someone else’s work as valid, and that’s still science, but the moment you stray into “I believe…”, then that’s faith-based religiosity.

    Most people don’t get past that point. Someone told them something, they took it as true, and “believe” in it as fervently as the most irrational god-botherer.

    You have to examine what is told to you by others, and then evaluate it. I’ve never taken the climate-change fear-mongers seriously, because I paid attention in school and read a lot outside it. The theory that we’re undergoing some uniquely ruinous anthropologically-caused climate shift is belied by the same Medieval Warming Period that they tried to erase in the records. Norse did not populate Greenland and transplant typical Norse agriculture during a climate period that was anything like ours–Even to this day, you’d have a hell of a time getting crops to grow there, and it is nowhere near as pleasantly warm as it was when the Norse settled the place. This tells us that it’s been both warmer and colder than the now, and that the con artists telling us the fake stories that they’re telling are full of shit. When was the last time we had a Winter Fair on the Thames, again? Were there SUVs running around during the 19th Century, when the river quit freezing solid?

    You’ve got ancient mines showing up from under melting glaciers. Mines that show signs of abandonment to the cold, and nobody can do the math to recognize that if those mines exist, then it must have been at least as warm as it is now, back then?

    So, the point is this: If you listen to scientists with no more thought than a parishioner listening to their priest rattle on about the nature of the Trinity, you’re not some great rational thinker. What you are is an equally deluded “believer’ in something you don’t understand, which puts you in exactly the same place as the religious types you so idiotically mock.

    Personally, having observed this crap since the early ’70s, and having seen everything change back and forth, I quit taking the “science” seriously a long time ago. If some study turns something up, wait a few months or years, and there will be another one come along to refute it, or turn it on its ear. Eggs are bad; no, they’re not… Coffee is bad; no, it’s not… We’re entering an ice age; no, we’re headed for global warming…

    At some point, the con becomes clear: Follow the money. What is getting the grants, and who pays for them? Recognize that, and you soon become cynical about “science”. Frankly, recognizing the history of the whole “global warming” scam, you have to remember how Reagan was threatening to cut the budget at NOAA, and how rapidly they went through a succession of panic-mongering “theories” until they found one that hit the right spot due to where we were in the climate cycle. It was easy to believe the BS–Successive years of warm winters, forgetting the cyclic nature of it all. I can’t wait to see how they explain the downturn that’s no doubt waiting in the wings, but I can guarantee you one damn thing–The solution will be the same one they offered up for the early “coming Ice Age” and “Global Warmening”, which will be to throw total political power to the academic scientist class, who will wield that power to save us all…

    Never mind that the whole thing is a figment of the imagination.

  12. At some point, the con becomes clear: Follow the money. What is getting the grants, and who pays for them? Recognize that, and you soon become cynical about “science”.

    Look at NASA, for crissakes ! Climate Science was dead once it fell under “Government Funding..”

    50 years ago, my professor of Surgery used to say “There are more people living off cancer than dying from it.” It has only gotten much worse.

  13. Good Lord.

    Yeah, he totes can afford to throw stones where Sarah’s sanity and judgement are concerned; neither you nor I are lawyers, so it is invalid for us to make any observations about legal technicalities. :)

    Tomorrow’s heart attacks are AVI’s fault for rebelling against my fatwah ordering the euthanasia of all drug addicts, felons, and mentally ill. Which I have at least as much authority and expertise to order as anyone else involved in the other mess.

    The formal processes of legislation and judicial review are the nice way of sorting out competing claims about public health regulations or force/property rights.

    There’s a less nice way in crowdsourcing things with mutual slaughter.

    Slap fights over whose experts are sane, and whose experts are lunatics are at the very best, battlespace preparation.

    AVI: Is SARS Kirk’s fault? He and the other NCOs did not shape the US military into a genocide ready force. If the nineties had been spent exterminating the Russians and the Chinese, there would have been no SARS.

    I’m quite serious in saying that exterminating the Chinese, halting international travel, and severely restricting domestic US activities are all policies that might decrease US deaths to diseases originating in the southern PRC. I’m also quite serious in saying that it is legitimate to prefer slaughtering the non-Americans of the world to making even seemingly minor concessions to them.

  14. Aren’t some of the problems because people worthy of respect as experts are also human and what they look for is informed by their experiences? This is not as deadly as AIDS and Ebola – where some experts made their names.

    On the other hand, how many diseases with these symptoms are ones where smoking appears to offer resistance? It seems counter intuitive to someone with my limited knowledge but a lifetime of warnings about tobacco. Maybe the experts understood this quickly, but the disease’s unique qualities were teased out under intense pressure, scrutiny. And began with somewhat questionable Chinese data. Extraordinary politicization must not have helped, especially when such attacks were, as modern political ones are, snarky and personal.

    David’s point that “science” in the “social sciences” has tended to devalue better work in more empirical (and traditional) sciences suggests, again, why those of us who are not scientists tend to doubt the “follow the science” mantra. And the incentives to count corpses as dying from, not with, covid surely distorted data.

  15. @ Kirk Parker – We had deaths right out of the gate in NH and VT from someone who refused to quarantine. And also @ Bob – your attempt to reduce my argument to the absurd fails, because you didn’t understand what I wrote, just knee-jerked a response you had ready to fire.

    Everyone got the disease from someone, didn’t they?

  16. There are two “Sciences” in play here. The first is science as it’s understood by practitioners, researchers, doctors, engineers and just laymen who have taken the trouble to become informed. This science is based on explicitly presented data, and explicitly delineated reasoning to reach a conclusion. An absolute requirement is that everything needed to retrace the path is presented accurately and completely.

    The other is the cult SCIENCE promulgated by people like Oprah or Gwyneth. This is based on the pronouncements of someone that has somehow risen to the top of the media cesspit. If one holds their nose and avoids inhaling long enough to take a close look, they find nothing there but a long chain of unsubstantiated assertions. This is usually buttressed by a claim that action is needed too urgently to allow questions. It is also a favorite assertion of government functionaries.

    When someone with solid credentials in some aspect of the first sort of science starts making assertions in some other, unrelated, aspect without doing the work that would elevate his opinion above the average of any other interested layman and claims authority on the basis of his reputation, we arrive at SCIENCE. Then there are the ones trying to sell something. This seems to be especially dangerous or lucrative territory for medical doctors and at least one ethically challenged psychologist.

    A dangerous compounding factor is that many if not all of the scientific establishment has been taken over by true believer SJW types. This is a natural sort of occurrence where the actual members are too busy and cede control to those willing to devote the time and those willing to devote the time have ulterior motives. This provides an even more opaque cover for SCIENCE and coopts by association all the credibility of the membership.

  17. If it can’t be reproduced by a third party under the identical experimental conditions, it ain’t “science”. If you don’t publish your data, experiment structure, and aren’t completely open about everything you did…? It ain’t science, either.

    Also, if your “science” isn’t subject to experimental or data-driven statistical verification and duplication? That’s not “science”, at all.

    If you call yourself a rational, science-based individual, and you just accept the pronouncements of your lab-coated betters, without bothering to look underneath those lab coats for the actual data? You’re no better than that devout Christian you make fun of, and the only real difference between you and he is that you’ve chosen a different altar to worship at.

    I profess to no certainty about anything. Show me proof, and I’ll accept it. I’ve never encountered anything that would back up the idea of an interested God involving Himself in secular matters, but it does strike me as somewhat absurd that the Universe would have come into existence absent some such involved party. Likewise, I see nothing to really convince me that the whole thing was an absurd sequence of random events stacked upon each other to make things like us to look out upon it all to speculate as to what the hell is going on, either.

    So, I maintain an open mind. Show me Bigfoot, and I’ll accept the reality of a large cryptozoological great ape or what have you wandering the wilderness. Don’t show him off? I’ll be equally accepting. The Universe is a confusing place, and our senses are crap when it comes to taking in everything. I’m not ruling anything out, and if I see the evidence brought before me, I’ll take it in and evaluate it as best I can.

    The problem with all too many of us is that we don’t accept that we might be wrong about something. There’s a part of the human psyche that requires faith and abject submission to belief, and if that void isn’t filled with God or what have you, then it fills itself with crystals, new-age bullshit, and what should really be called “sciencism”. Which is a problem, because the “sciencism” types don’t allow for any doubt or skepticism, at all–If one of their white-robed sycophants says something, then it must be true, and they never, ever question that pronouncement.

    Keep an open mind, I say. God may or may not be a real thing, but that has nothing to do with unraveling the puzzles and mysteries of the world around us. We do well to maintain a sense of the unlikely, and just accept that we’re really only a few pounds of jelly-like protoplasm driving around some meat and bone, trying to make sense of the reality around us through some really questionable instrumentation that’s also made up of highly unreliable protoplasm.

    Hell, for all I know, I’m a brain in a jar on some lab shelf somewhere, and all this is simulation around me… Including the reader of this. How’s that feel, being a figment of my imagination?

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